Of all the celebrations 2011 will bring, none can be of greater significance in some ways for the English speaking world, and for the church in these islands than the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version, the King James Bible.
Broadcaster and writer, Melvyn Bragg, spoke from the heart when he said, “There is no doubt in my mind that the King James Bible not Shakespeare set this language on its path to become a universal language on a scale unprecedented before or since.”
Andrew Motion, until recently, Poet Laureate said with equal fervour, “The King James Bible is a cornerstone of our culture and our language. Whatever our faith, whatever we believe, we have to recognise that the rhetorical power of this book and in particular its power fto fuse history with poetry connects at the most fundamental level with our own history and poetry.”
Even Richard Dawkins has joined in singing its praises as a cultural icon.
What is it about a translation of the Bible that has such power?
For those engaged in producing this translation it was not a literary masterpiece that they sought, far less a cultural icon. They sensed a power within the Bible that their translation could unlock.
Miles Smith wrote these words in the Preface:
Translation it is that openeith the window, to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.
It was the conviction of the translators that their translation would release a power that was in some way locked up in the words of the Bible.
I don’t so much want to celebrate the majesty of the Authorised Version, the grandeur of its language – but I want to discover again what it is that is released by such a translation as we read the Bible.
There can be no better place to start than in the opening words of John’s Gospel.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2The same was in the beginning with God.
3All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
The God we believe in, is the God of creation.
The God we believe in is the God who communicates.
He is the God of the Word.
That Word is in the beginning with God, it is the very thing that brings creation into being.
We touch that Word in creation itself … and we touch that word in the words that make up the Bible. It is the very Word of God. It is a life-giving word that is a lamp unto my feet and a light for my path.
The Word of God is a wonderful word.
And yet, it can be fraught with difficulty. It can be difficult to discern the ‘Word’ of God in creation – there is a dark side to nature as we know only too well from natural disasters to the brutality of nature red in tooth and claw. We often need people to help us find understanding of the wonders of nature. It’s one of the things that prompts me to tune into the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures each year and this year join a lecture room full of youngsters marvelling at the way size matters in surprising ways in the world of nature. People help untangle the mysteries of nature and for me help me to make sense of nature and what goes on in the world around me. As I make sense of nature and that world, I have a very real sense of the awesomeness of God in creation. For me it is as if those people are witnesses to the Word of God in nature.
For me the same applies to the Word of God in Scripture. Often it is simple to understand – I can see the power of God’s word instantly in those wonderful words of Jesus we shall be using in communion … come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
But in just the same way, there are parts of the Scriptures I find difficult to understand. Whole swathes of the Old Testament seem to come from a different era, reflect a different way of looking at things and seem quite alien. Where is God’s Word in all of this?
There are swathes of the New Testament that are complex, difficult to work through, not least in the Authorised Version, especially in the letters of the New Testament.
Once again, I feel in need of people to guide me in my understanding. People who have made a study of the world of the Old Testament can make it come alive. People who have grappled with Paul, make him speak in a way today that is filled for me with God’s word. These are the witnesses that help me fathom out the depths of God’s word; they are the ones like the translators of the Authorised Version who open a window on to the wonders of God’s Word in the Scriptures.
To discern God’s Word in nature and in God’s creation, I need help from people who are witnesses to it.
To discern God’s Word in the words of Scripture I need help from people who are witnesses to the truth it contains.
This is precisely the insight of these opening words of John’s Gospel.
It is the conviction of the writer that God recognises our need of someone to be a witness to the light that is in the Word.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
The Christmas readings from Luke’s Gospel speak of the birth of John the Baptist. The birth is foretold, and the story of John the Baptist and of Jesus, and the story of their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary are all intertwined. In Matthew and Luke the nativity readings lead on into the account of John the Baptist’s ministry. This wonderful Christmas reading in John’s Gospel starts in the same place.
John the Baptist is ‘a man sent from God’. He is as it were the last in a long line of witnesses whose task it is to point people to the Light and so enable people to recognise the Word of God.
But at this point in John’s Gospel we begin to see that for the writer of this Gospel something even greater and more wonderful has happened.
There has come someone who is more than just a witness to the Light. Someone has come who in a very real way, is the Light. The next words of this prologue to John’s Gospel point towards the coming not of a man sent from God to be a witness, but of one who himself embodies the light, and is the very word of God.
The writer of this Gospel has spent time in the company of Jesus, has witnessed the signs he did, the teaching he shared, the death he endured, and the resurrection victory he won. He has lived a life-time following the Way, the Truth, the Life opened up by this Jesus. And he is convinced that he is the true Light. He has the power to transform and change people’s lives and enable them to be one with God.
9That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
12But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
13Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
14And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
In Jesus Christ supremely we can see that Word of God that makes sense of the world of nature and the world of creation. As Jesus opens the window we can see the God who is alongside us in the middle of the suffering and darker sides of the world of nature. That’s where God is.
But it is in Jesus Christ that we can also see that Word of God that is in the words of Scripture. He is the One who takes the lid off the well an enables us to draw life-giving water from the depths of the Scriptures and discover in them the Word of God that is a lamp unto our feet, a light for our path, the Word of God that gives life to all who believe.
That’s what I want to set out to do on Sunday evenings through this 2011, the year of the Bible. I want to focus on Jesus Christ and through him grapple with the Old Testament. My hope is that as we draw on Jesus, his teaching, his life, death and resurrection, we shall find that the Old Testament is opened up in such a way that we can see in it the life-giving Word of God in all its life-changing power.